Get more out of life online in 40 days and 40 nights
With our New Year's resolutions long since forgotten, for many, the looming Lent season means yet another cause to be miserable. Whether it's sweet treats or the sugar in your tea, something has to give as we take our vow of abstinence.
But the ritual of giving things up - and returning to them at Easter - is difficult. In the digital age, it's easier to make a promise for Lent, and turn over a new pancake as you change your life for good. You can use it as a chance to be a better, more efficient and more responsible web user - even if it does only last 40 days and 40 nights.
Follow our straightforward guide to make this year the one where you stop trying to cut out your favourite snack, and give your virtual life the spring clean it needs. Our suggestions will help you kick habits, get more from your broadband and may even improve your career and family life.
Here are just a dozen alternative vows that will keep you busy and your mind off chocolate this Lent:
Family and friends
The internet's handy for lots of things, but perhaps most useful for keeping in contact with loved ones. You can track down long lost relatives and even rekindle old flames. For peace of mind there are always 'Delete' and 'Block' buttons on hand should relations ever fray.
1. Stay in touch like you said you would - There's no escaping Aunt Mildred. She's on Facebook now, and when she's finished tending her FarmVille crops she'll flood your wall with embarrassing comments. In all seriousness, it's never been easier to keep in touch with our friends and family. Facebook aside, there's Skype for making free international video calls and with emails you'll never have to lick a stamp again. Yes, we're all very busy these days - even Aunt Mildred has less Angry Birds time than she used to - but with these social tools at our disposal, there's no longer an excuse for drifting apart.
2. Research the family tree - We've all watched the soap stars getting tearful on Who Do You Think You Are? - if not, you can probably catch it on BBC iPlayer - and thanks to the internet, you too can learn that your ancestors died in bizarre or, more likely, totally normal circumstances. In fact, the web's an invaluable resource for helping you to discover your origins. Census records for the UK from 1841 to 1911 are available online from the National Archives website, perfect for getting you started. Sites like Ancestry.co.uk and Genes Reunited can then help complete the picture.
3. Delete some Facebook "friends" - Research has shown there are only 3.74 degrees of separation between any two of Facebook's 800 million users. It's proof the internet has brought us closer together than ever. In fact, the average Facebook user has 130 "friends". The sarcastic air quotes are necessary because in everybody's list are at least 30 so-called "friends" they probably wouldn't even acknowledge in the street. Thankfully, there's nothing more liberating than trimming away a few dozen in a seasonal spring clean. Just tap the "Unfriend" button and may old acquaintance be forgot. A word of warning, though, once you start it's quite hard to stop. Don't get too carried away - you wouldn't want to appear unpopular.
Anyone who says the internet is good for productivity obviously doesn't have a Sims Social avatar or thriving FarmVille plantation to distract them from their work. But if you look hard enough, there are ways the web can boost your professional output and even help you launch a new career.
4. Organise stuff better - Remember your 14th birthday party? Just three people came so you danced to Altered Images alone in a darkened room. In the age of social media, that needn't ever happen again. Make your Facebook Events page public and there'll be 21,000 freeloaders at your beer fridge in a flash. As well as getting your social life in order, you could also turn over a new leaf at work. With websites like Google Docs and Box.com, you can store, edit, organise and share files with your co-workers. Another handy widget is Trello, a free collaboration tool that arranges your projects into boards. In one glance, it tells you what's being worked on and who's doing what. It's almost like having eyes everywhere. It sounds creepy but it's not.
5. Start a blog - If there's one thing duller than the people who talk about nothing but voyages of self-discovery in Asia, it's the blogs they expect us to read about their travels. But blogging doesn't have to be boring. There are now literally millions of blogs covering all imaginable topics - from Photoshop Disasters to the outrageous hairstyles of Bullseye contestants. If you still haven't jumped on the blogging bandwagon, why not use Lent to get started? A site like Tumblr is good for beginners, while more confident web users might prefer Blogger or WordPress. Remember it's no longer 1998, so a blog about you, your children and your pets is unlikely to attract many visitors. The best way to grow an audience is to make regular, engaging posts on an interesting, unique or niche area of interest. For some, blogging has proved to be a great way to make money online. Do it right and by Easter you'll be blogging full-time as you "find yourself" in a South-East Asian paradise.
6. Become an internet celebrity - Andy Warhol's prediction that, "in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes" has never been closer to the truth. Even the talentless and bewildered court fame in the opening rounds of the X Factor, and eventual winners are guaranteed a number-one single and before they return to work at Argos. On the internet, it's different - you absolutely have to be good at something. Whether it's blogging like Perez Hilton, making folks laugh like Natalie Tran, or just being a cat like the brilliant Maru, there are countless ways the web can deliver your 15 minutes of celebrity. Better start practicing your party piece.
Most of us have an unhealthy relationship with technology, relying a little too heavily on gadgets to get things done. In fact, the chances are your digital life's a mess. Adopt one of these as your alternative promise for Lent and start cleaning up your corner of cyberspace.
7. Help save the planet - In recent years we've all got a little bit greener. From rinsing out rancid milk cartons to reusing wafer-thin carrier bags - it's all good for the environment and it's quickly become a way of life. But if there's one thing most of us are guilty of, it's leaving gadgets on standby - or worse still, switched on and sat idle when there's really no need at all. That little red light stands for evil, and it also means you're paying for wasted electricity. Until scientists find a way to prevent such energy loss, we can help the ice caps melt a tad slower by turning off the computer whenever it's not in use. The same goes for TVs, consoles and phone chargers. Use the next 40 days to get in the habit of saving the Earth.
8. Get cheaper broadband - Whether it's car insurance or a last-minute flight to Los Angeles, it seems like everyone's at it. Comparing prices online is an effective, quick and easy-peasy way to save money. But one household cost that's sometimes overlooked is the home broadband connection. With free and impartial websites like Broadbandchoices.co.uk you can compare prices and find the best broadband deals available in your area. There are decent savings to be made and you could cut costs further by bundling with one provider for your broadband, phone and TV services. Why not make a thrifty start to Lent this year? Check out the latest offers now, or risk forgetting our advice and paying over the odds for longer than you need to!
9. Clear out your cache - Just like a well-oiled machine, computers generally run better with an occasional service and spring clean. Without getting too technical, your Temporary Internet Files folder - home to your web browser's "cache" - contains a digital snapshot of each webpage you've visited. They help websites load faster but can hog a lot your hard drive space, as well as cause privacy issues. Every now and then - the start of Lent's as good a time as any - it's worth deleting your temporary internet files to free up some space and wipe every trace of where you've been online. Not that you've anything to hide, of course.
Break your bad habits
Are rules really there to be broken, or is that just something naughty people say? Most of us are tempted to bend them on occasion, but the undeniable truth is that we shouldn't. If you're worried you've become an online outlaw, there are ways to reform as law-abiding citizen of the web.
10. Ditch the pirate lifestyle - The rise of faster broadband turned the web into a hotbed for digital piracy. Full-length albums, TV shows and movies can now be downloaded in the blink of an eye. It sounds awfully convenient, doesn't it? But the fact remains that copyright infringement is against the law, as well as being a major threat to creative industries worldwide. Luckily, it has never been easier to download legally - just look at iTunes, Amazon, Netflix and Spotify - and as authorities clamp down on dodgy sites, it's increasingly difficult to be a pirate and get away with it. Make it a promise this Lent and start the spring as you mean to go on - as a responsible downloader who respects the right of artists to earn a living.
11. Stop spreading rumours - As the world of blogging and social media expands, so too has the number of defamation lawsuits involving web content. The internet is a public space, so there's every need to watch what we say, just as we would in "real life". Recent research by advice site Knowthenet showed it's easier than most people think to break the law online, with privacy and defamation cases among the common misdemeanours. But it's not just celebrities with super injunctions at risk - ordinary members of the public can be dragged into disrepute by internet rumours spread via Twitter and Facebook. Stay out of trouble in the six weeks ahead by avoiding temptation to pass on the rumours you read online.
12. Kill your addiction to social media - If you're not guilty of it yourself, you're bound to know someone who is. But the truth is there's nothing more annoying than a person whose eyes and ears switch off as they become engrossed in yet another Facebook session. An Ofcom report found we Brits spend more time online than any other country in Europe, and most surfing activity is centred around social media. If you've found you spend less time sleeping than you do stalking your ex's profile, you may well be addicted. Perhaps your promise for Lent should be to fight the Facebook obsession, or even commit "social media suicide" like thousands have already.
The second option's a permanent move so there'll be no crawling back once your 40 days are over.